LEWIS – Larry Jones thinks the camels he added this year to the handmade, life-sized nativity scene in the front yard if his Lewis home is finally attracting a little more attention.
Jones has been creating the scene, which is now up to 15 pieces, over the past five years.
He thought this would be his last year of adding to the scene but then decided on one more piece – a shepherd holding a little lamb – to make next year.
Jones has lived in Lewis since 1975. Moving there from California to be near family, he first opened a restaurant. Then he joined Feist Publications as graphic arts manager when the maker of area-wide phone directories opened in Spearville. He retired when the plant closed.
“I’ve always wanted one,” Jones, 71, said of the full-sized crèche. “The Methodist church in Hutchinson has one that used to be on the awning at the old Pegues department store downtown.”
He figured out how to make it after visiting a brass casting company in Loveland, Colorado.
“I’d done a little sculpture, and I wanted to do it in brass,” he said. But, when he visited the plant, he learned they were able to enlarge small statutes into bigger pieces by carving a mold out of Styrofoam to then cast.
“I thought ‘I can do that,’” he said. So he started researching online and saw a place in California, Hot Wire Foam Factory, where he could buy the necessary tools.
He starts by gluing together foot-square-by-18-inch long pieces of Styrofoam, and then he carves the block using “hot wire tools,” which use heated wire to cut through the foam by melting it.
“I started small and got bigger,” he said. “Now I have knives and routers and all kinds of different effects and engravers.”
He uses pieces from a clay desktop nativity set that he bought some 40 years go as models. He started with the baby Jesus.
“When I sculpt, I hold (the model) in my hand and I can turn it and see the different directions,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how it would go, but it came out pretty good. Then I did the manger and Mary and Joseph, and then a donkey and angel. Each year I’ve added two or three pieces.”
He spends four or five hours a day working on the pieces. The baby took a couple of weeks; the last camel, about three months.
After he creates a figure out of foam, he sands each with a sheetrock sanding screen and then coats it in a 1/8th-inch thick shell of concrete before painting it in a flat white.
“The concrete is like the consistency of a milkshake and I just brush it on,” he explained. He applies thicker coats with a putty knife.
When he first started, he did most of his work in the house, carving in the kitchen.
“By Christmas that first year, every room in the house was filled with the stuff,” he said. “I had to get a shop, and then another storage shed to store them in.”
His wife Debbie helps “with logistics,” Jones said, helping him move the pieces – and by putting up with his work.
He puts the display out on Thanksgiving and lights it at night through the season.
When he’s finished with the display, he’ll probably continue to create.
Last year he also created a 6 ½ foot long dragon for a friend’s herb garden. It has a thicker shell and is stained so it can stay out year-round, he said.
“People ask me to do things for them,” he said. “They give me an idea and I just kind of go. I have all kinds of projects going.”
“It’s been a joy,” Jones said of his work on the nativity. “It’s something I wanted to be able to do, to remind people of the reason for the season. I love Christmas and everything about it. It’s been a dream and I finally had time to acquire the knowledge by visiting that foundry.”